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April 9, 2009

A telling and troubling gubenatorial veto in New Mexico after death's repeal

This local story out of New Mexico, headlined "Governor vetoes teen sentencing change," provides further support for my enduring concerning that anti-death penalty advocacy and developments have a way of sapping political energy and interest in other progressive sentencing reforms.  Here is the basic story, with my commentary to follow:

When Gov. Bill Richardson showed up at the Farm & Ranch Heritage Museum on March 27 to sign the veteran's museum bill and meet with constituents, he was greeted by District Attorney Susana Martinez and family members of slain teenager Ashley Wax, all of whom urged him to veto a bill that would have given judges more discretion in the sentencing of juvenile murderers.

Richardson conceded at the time that he wasn't aware of the legislation, Senate Bill 7, but he vowed that he would review it.  On Wednesday, Richardson vetoed the bill.  "While I understand the intent behind the bill, and still believe that many youthful offenders can and should be rehabilitated, I am concerned that signature of Senate Bill 7 will inadvertently cause harm to the public," Richardson said.

Richardson said in his veto message that the law currently gave a judge the discretion to sentence murderers aged 15-17 to less than the maximum adult prison term.  "As such, the offenders' age and other factors can and should be considered by a judge in sentencing," Richardson said.  "However, signature of Senate Bill 7 would, in essence, allow courts to treat serious youthful offenders who commit the most heinous of crimes in the same manner as youthful offenders who commit minor offenses; hence, any deterrence that the enhanced penalty might cause would be taken away."

The bill had been introduced by Sen. Cisco McSorley, an Albuquerque attorney who is chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee.  It passed 24-12 in the Senate, but by a much narrower 35-31 margin in the House.  It would have allowed a juvenile aged 15 to 17 who is convicted of first-degree murder to be classified and treated as a "delinquent child" if the court determines that the child is amenable to treatment.

"Currently, if a child is accused of murder, a judge has no option to do a test on the child to see if he or she is a threat or if that child can be rehabilitated," McSorley said last month. "A judge's hands are tied."

Though I do not know all the specifics of New Mexico sentencing law, I am quite confident that, as a practical matter, this bill about how to deal with teenage killers is a lot more consequential to a lot more defendants and victims than New Mexico's death penalty laws.  Nevertheless, while efforts to abolish the (rarely applied) death penalty in New Mexico received an extraordinary amount of attention from interest groups and the public, this effort to allow judges to have more discretion in dealing with juve killers gets virtually no public attention and does not get the kind of national support that it likely deserved.  Indeed, as this press story highlights, Gov. Richardson was not even aware of the bill until opponents started urging him to veto it.

I tend to get a lot of push back from the well-meaning folks who seek death penalty abolition when I contend that abolitionist efforts can undercut other progressive criminal justice reform movements.  But, stories like this one reinforces my worry that these abolitions often too busy fiddling (and celebrating minor and largely symbolic victories) while other more consequential aspects of modern criminal justice systems continue to burn.

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April 9, 2009 at 09:44 AM | Permalink


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Governor Bill Richardson Vetoes Teen Sentencing Bill: Doug Berman posts a link at Sentencing Law and Policy to a Silver City Sun-News article reporting on the New Mexico Governor's decision to veto a teen sentencing bill. The bill, Senate Bill... [Read More]

Tracked on Apr 9, 2009 6:04:14 PM


Bravo. The bottom line, and I mean this, is that I don't really care about some 15 year old juvenile killer. If some juvenile killer decides to kill my kid, I want him locked up until he's an old man. Period. Why should he get a chance at life if my kid didn't?

Posted by: federalist | Apr 9, 2009 10:11:51 AM

How exactly do abolitionist efforts "undercut" other sentencing reforms? Are you suggesting that Richardson would not have vetoed this bill were it not for the recent death penalty repeal? I find that very hard to believe.

If anything, I would suggest abolitionists are paving the way for other sentencing reforms by pointing out the larger inequities of the criminal justice system.

Posted by: rn | Apr 9, 2009 1:05:30 PM

rn, you are absolutely right. First these mopes come for the death penalty, then LWOP etc. etc. You have to fight them everywhere.

Posted by: federalist | Apr 9, 2009 1:58:41 PM

Doug - Richardson is only living up to type. While he saw advantage in going with a big majority from both houses on the death penalty, the slimmer vote in the House on this, gave him the excuse to uphold the politicians "fix" of being able to point to still being tough on crime. Basically he has little or no interest in the underlying sentencing principles - he just wants to be loved. Your jibe at abolitionists is again misplaced.

Posted by: peter | Apr 9, 2009 2:26:46 PM

Richardson is a play-by-the-numbers politician. Prof. Berman, you are a play-by-the-numbers academic. In both issues (the dp repeal and the juve sentencing veto) - the only thing apparent is the lack of depth evidenced in their consideration.

Posted by: Ralph | Apr 9, 2009 2:27:23 PM

If I knew what it might mean to be a "play-by-the-numbers academic," Ralph, I think I would be upset. But, since I often get grief from students and colleagues for failing to play by the normal law school rules, I am not sure the charge really means what you think it means and/or that it is factually accurate. In either case, Ralph, I'd like to hear more.

Posted by: Doug B. | Apr 9, 2009 5:08:24 PM

@ Federalist - You misunderstand me. I am not suggesting that death penalty abolition would or should necessarily lead to other changes. I was merely responding to the suggestion in the post that abolitionist efforts somehow undermine efforts to change other sentencing laws.

I would much rather discuss individual sentencing issues on their own merits than continue to debate the point.

Richardson's veto of this bill is hard to defend given his professed belief that at least some juvenile offenders can be rehabilitated. The whole point of the bill is to give judges discretion to porperly deal with these offenders.

Posted by: rn | Apr 9, 2009 5:31:45 PM

As I understand the story, judges in NM already have sentencing discretion. What the bill would have provided is an option to declare a 17-year-old murderer a "delinquent child" rather than a criminal.

Richardson is right on this one (whether his motives are pure or not). "Delinquent child" treatment is for shoplifters and joyriders, not murderers.

Posted by: Kent Scheidegger | Apr 9, 2009 7:10:01 PM

I think the practice of defining what constitutes a juvenile by the severity of the acts they commit rather than their biology and brain development is a rather sad one. And the words "deterrence" and "youthful offender" should never be uttered in the same sentence by knowledgeable people.

Doug wrote: "I tend to get a lot of push back from the well-meaning folks who seek death penalty abolition when I contend that abolitionist efforts can undercut other progressive criminal justice reform movements. But, stories like this one reinforces my worry that these abolitions often too busy fiddling (and celebrating minor and largely symbolic victories) while other more consequential aspects of modern criminal justice systems continue to burn."

No push back from this quarter. Help us abolish the death penalty, then we can get to the things you think are important.

Posted by: DK | Apr 9, 2009 7:49:57 PM

Anyone from NM know the prosecutor's ulterior motive?

Posted by: Question | Apr 9, 2009 8:13:10 PM

"Why should he get a chance at life if my kid didn't?"

Because one kid's dead and the other's alive. It's not a justification or an excuse, but the reality is that we can't raise the dead. So instead of ruining just one life, we are now going to ruin two, and claim that society is better off. I don't get that thinking, I really don't. Revenge is self-defeating.

I don't have a problem with what Bill did in this case; I am not in favor of letting them get off as juvies and out of prison at 21. But I'm not convinced that they should be treated 100% like adults, either.

Posted by: Daniel | Apr 9, 2009 8:24:07 PM

Berman recognizes only pushback from abolitionist wackos. He lives in an isolated intellectual neighborhood, walled off from any street reality.

These and he should be forced to work a shift in a maximum security prison with these misunderstood juveniles. These are the ones sent to behead people who disrespected a member of an illegal alien para-military gang. These are the ones that wacked a dozen drug dealer rivals. Show us how to manage these extreme predators with kindness.

These left wing wackos hate America. Anyone that seeks the destruction of our nation gets their full, supercilious support.

Posted by: Supremacy Claus | Apr 9, 2009 10:32:41 PM

The sixty year old is more mature than the forty year old, who is more mature than the twenty year old. The age of the defendant is a pretext by the abolitionist.

Posted by: Supremacy Claus | Apr 9, 2009 10:36:09 PM

I once approached my own car with my three year old. I said, "Hey, look at this car. I like it. Let's steal it." I then jiggled my key in the lock, "Got it. We can take it, now."

The kid freaked out. "No, don't do that, Daddy. It's bad. The police will get you."

These kid murderers knew right from wrong from age three.

Posted by: Supremacy Claus | Apr 9, 2009 10:46:42 PM

Daniel, that is, of course, a good point. But if "ruining lives" is bad, then isn't letting violent criminals out after short sentences almost always the wrong answer, as they ruin a lot of lives.

Posted by: federalist | Apr 10, 2009 11:19:45 AM

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